Raging dust storm hits Mars rovers

A huge dust storm has blown up on Mars, threatening to destroy two plucky robot rovers that have spent nearly three and a half years exploring the planet.

Major dust storm of 2001 imaged by HubbleThe raging storm is covering nearly the whole of the martian southern hemisphere, blotting out almost all sunlight.

It is so vast that it is severely affecting both Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, although they are on opposite sides of the planet.

Nasa scientists fear that the storm will cause the solar-powered rovers’ batteries to run down completely, leaving them silent, sand-battered wrecks.

The main storm has blown up in just two weeks to cover nearly seven million square miles of Mars. It has been made worse by a second storm that erupted a few days ago.

Opportunity has been hit hardest by the bad weather, with power levels already significantly reduced. The dust storm blew up just as Nasa were planning to sent the robot on a possible mission of no return inside a steep-rimmed crater called Victoria.

Project manager John Callas said: “The storm is affecting both rovers and reducing the power levels on Opportunity. We are keeping an eye on this as we go forward, but our entry into Victoria Crater will be delayed until no sooner than July 13.”

Dust storms blow up every few years on Mars and scientists are worried because the big ones often last for months. Our pictures, from the Hubble space telescope, show how one blew up in 2001, almost completely hiding the surface.

Opportunity, which landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars, has been exploring despite nursing a broken robotic arm. Its companion rover Spirit, in Gusev Crater, is soldiering on with a broken right front wheel which it has to drag through the martian soil. This failure has actually helped provide one of Spirit’s greatest discoveries.

Each rover is the size of a small car. Both have been incredibly successful because their original missions were scheduled to last just 90 days. Photo: Hubble/Nasa/ESA.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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